The Frontstretch: Thanks For The Chase, Mr. France by Tommy Thompson -- Tuesday August 8, 2006

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Thanks For The Chase, Mr. France

Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday August 8, 2006


Amazingly, there are still NASCAR fans that profess not to like the Chase for the Championship points format in Nextel Cup. Of course, that system was introduced by NASCAR's Chairman of the Board/CEO, Brian France, and initiated at the start of the 2004 season. In the beginning, it was easy to understand the initial outcry from those that for multiple reasons had felt that NASCAR was moving too far and too fast from their roots. Now, though, continued resistance from fans has turned puzzling, as the Chase has done nothing but a world of good for the sport.

Maybe that resistance comes from the desire to keep things the same. Change is difficult for many of us, and NASCAR has in the last several years made some decisions that would test the resolve of even the most liberal minded of fans to continue to follow the support with the loyalty that they had previously demonstrated. Race fans liked tracks such as North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, and NASCAR simply pulled the rug out from under them, without remorse. In short order, the Southern 500, the Labor Day tradition of racing at Darlington, was moved to California. In their place, more and more tracks have been added that just didn't look, feel or smell like the NASCAR that these fans grew up with and endeared them to the sport. Brian France is seen by some as the person easiest to blame, the one responsible for the loss of some of NASCAR loyalists’ fondest memories.

Well, it’s true things have changed over the last 20 years in NASCAR, and changes have seemed to be more frequent and dramatic since Brian France took charge less than three years ago. The sport has grown, and become very much a mainstream attraction on a nationwide scale. Some longtime fans understandably resent that no one bothered to consult them as to what they would like to see in the way of improving the sport. It is no longer a south of the Mason-Dixon line sport, having shed almost any lingering reminders of its beginnings. But these changes, good or bad, were all business decisions arrived at by NASCAR's front office management to maximize present and future profits. After all, that is what successful businesses do; they grow, change and are flexible in making changes that are believed to benefit the business in the long run.

No matter how much fans may like the racing, the competition itself is, to NASCAR, a commodity that they are continually looking to package for sale at the highest price and to the largest number of fans possible. Some of the many changes NASCAR has implemented can be debated as to whether in the long run they are good for the sport, but the overhauling of the point system to allow for what is a playoff system for auto racing is a gift that we should only thank Brian France and NASCAR for.

NASCAR has the longest season of any major professional sport in America and, as such, it is only reasonable to expect that spectator interest will wane at different times during the long season. We all look forward with renewed anticipation at Daytona in February at Daytona as our drivers prepare for the season-opening 500, and that excitement generally continues at least through the spring and early summer. However, along the way NASCAR has known that fans become distracted by numerous other activities vying for their attention, including fans’ interests in major league baseball, and, later in the year, college and professional football. At a point just after halfway of the NASCAR Cup season, things become very much "same old, same old" to all but the most avid of race fans. By August, as football games and other summer activities begin to compete with NASCAR's thirst for viewers, a large segment of race fans must make a decision as to where they are going to focus their time limited interests.

In 2003 B.C. (Before Chase) the decision as to whether to continue to follow the Nextel Cup season exclusively or to divert some or all of a fan’s attention elsewhere was, in many cases, not a difficult decision to arrive at. Often, by midseason it had become clear that possibly three or four, but more likely only two drivers stood any chance of winning the championship, and if that particular fan’s favorite driver wasn't one of them, the rival NFL game looked much more appealing. In truth, depending on whom a fan supported, organizing the sock drawer seemed equally interesting. The newness of the season had worn off, hopes had been squashed, and it was time to satisfy the need for entertainment somewhere else.

The 2006 season would, B.C., be a contest between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson to win the Championship. Not to bust anyone's bubble, but fan favorites such as Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and defending champion Tony Stewart would now be walking a tightrope between doing enough to finish in the Top 10 and making changes in their organizations to hopefully improve enough to compete for the Championship next season. Any hope of winning it all this year would have evaporated weeks ago. Instead, thanks to Brian France's innovative decision to establish the Chase format, fans of those drivers are still watching each race intently, and those drivers account for a very large percentage of all NASCAR fans.

There is no guarantee that all of the most popular drivers will be included in the Top 10 when the field is set for the Chase to the Championship, and, of course, there shouldn't be any guarantees. However, some will inevitably make the final cut, and for those that don't, the races leading up to the last ten races provide much more hope and interest to the fans of those drivers than they would have had under the old point system. NASCAR enthusiasts can now follow the sport from season's beginning to end with a true sense of excitement and interest as to the final outcome of the long season. Now, on August 9th, 2006, there are still at least thirteen drivers that could realistically become this year's Cup Champion. That's thirteen drivers, owners, and team members along with their countless number of fans that still have every reason to remain optimistic and excited about their prospects for the final stretch of races. And, truth be told, every NASCAR fan, although maybe pledging primary allegiance to a driver outside the Top 10 as the Chase begins, will have an alternate driver/team that they feel an affinity for, and will root for their good fortune and success during the championship run.

Traditionalists need not feel that they have sold out by embracing the 10-race, Top 10 free-for-all Championship format that is now in place. It's a playoff; all the other major sports do it. Sports exist because they entertain, and the Chase certainly has increased the entertainment value to our sport. The Top 10 Chase to the Championship is clearly one of the good decisions that Brian France and NASCAR have made. It would have been great 20, or even 30 years ago. Oh man, what kind of stories would race historians be recalling now had the likes of Petty, Yarborough, Pearson, Allison or Waltrip competed under today's championship format.

NASCAR purists may or may not have valid complaints concerning the vastly changing landscape of the premier stock car series, but sometimes change is for the better, and this is one of those times. The first two seasons of the new points format have left the question of who would be crowned the season's champion in doubt until the last lap of the last race of the season. There's every reason to believe that the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup Chase to the Championship will once again leave fans, old and new to the sport, sitting on the edges of their seats in similar anticipation.

Thanks, Brian France.

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08/09/2006 05:23 AM

Nice Tommy, and well put.

There have been a few articles against the Chase popping up recently. Mostly from the newspaper types. It seems the argument is still the same, although the wrapper differs.

The argument is that the current point system no longer rewards consistency. That because the points are reset, it is unfair and penalizes drivers that are consistent through the season prior to the chase. For example, killing JJ’s points lead that he’s worked so hard to get.

While in a literal sense it might be somewhat of an argument, it fails to really stand up to any tests. Even with the Chase, it still rewards consistency.

1) You have to be consistent enough to make the dance after Richmond.

2) You still have to keep your act together after Richmond if you’re in, or you’re out of it.

The Chase isn’t perfect, and neither was the system prior to the Chase. There’s going to be some tweaks after Homestead, so we’ll see what it brings.

The same argument could be used for any other sport with a playoff system. What about a football team that goes 14 and 2 into the playoffs and gets dumped? They built up an incredible season, all for not. Same with baseball, basketball, or hockey.

All the Chase does is break down the teams consistency into two runs. Consistent enough to make it, and consistent enough to win it.

It is a challenge within a challenge, and the best team prevails. The teams know this, and now strategicly apply their efforts accordingly. Make the Chase, then close the deal.

08/09/2006 06:54 AM

OK, Tommy, I admit I’m one of those people who doesn’t like the Chase. I don’t think it’s fair to teams like (this year)the 17 and 48, who are having true championship-caliber runs. Plus, if a team is in tenth place, maybe 450 points out, with ten races left they are obvioulsy having a good year-but having a championship year is another story.

The format worked last year-Tony Stewart was consistent all year and deserved his title. The 2004 Chase was a disaster-the tenth place guy going in WON-and if you look at his numbers all year, he did not have a true championship season-he got lucky.

Now rumor has NASCAR adding more teams to the Chase next year. What needs to be done, if NASCAR wants to emphasize winning, especially during the Chase, is reward it more, not reward more teams who aren’t doing it. It’s already been illustrated that a team can have a decent but not stellar season and win the whole thing. (The whole “better to be lucky than good” concept) Great concept for winning races, terrible concept for crowning a champion.

You make some great points, Tommy. I guess I’m just not ready to jump ship.

08/09/2006 07:53 AM

Let’s also remember that sometimes whether or not you win is out of your control. Just ask Carl Edwards. Sometimes you can be championship caliber but be knocked out by some field filler. Jeff Gordon would be in fourth place if he hadn’t been knocked out of it in Bristol. Carl would likely be in 12th place if Tony hadn’t knocked him out at Pocono. Two years ago, Jeremy was knocked out in the first race of the chase and could never get his momentum back. This is the one area where I wish NASCAR better policed on track activity. It isn’t fair that a whole season can be called a failure for something not of your own making.

08/09/2006 11:51 AM

I guess if you prefer ‘racertainment’ to really racing, the crapshoot was custom made for you. Playoffs work for sports where not all the teams play each other every weekend. Not the case with Nascar. When was the last time someone finished 5th in a baseball game? Then, to add insult to injury, adding more teams to the ‘finals’ simply waters down an already weak product. fading attendance and TV ratings have to be telling you something isn’t working. An artificial playff made to please a TV network who is already on the way out…yeah, that’s good business.

08/09/2006 12:48 PM

I think that racing fans and others (such as yourself?) are simply going to have to “agree to disagree” on this one. If you’re a fan of manufactured drama, like so-called “reality TV” shows, then the Chase is right up your alley. If you simply want to watch good racing, then it’s meaningless fluff. I fall into the latter category.

The individual excitement of each race (which is also suffering now) is all I really want. If someone wants to crown a champion at the end of it all, well that’s OK too. However, the aforementioned “champion” should ideally be the one who performed the best overall for the duration of the season. Not the driver with the least bad luck in the last handful of races (after being given a “Lucky Dog” to get him back in the hunt).

“Other sports do it” isn’t good enough. I’m not a fan of “other sports” for a reason. Given the current trend, I probably won’t be a fan of this one for much longer either. The Car of Tomorrow will probably mean a lot of Fans of Yesterday waving adios. After over 25 years as a fan, I’ll probably be one of ‘em.

Mark Byers
08/09/2006 12:59 PM

You make some good points on your statement but here is the problem, NASCAR has forsaken it’s past for the future. It’s a simple and plain fact, you must remember where you come from to have hope of a existince in the future. I have no problem with the Chase, if it were somewhere else. NASCAR is suppose to be about proving who is the best over 36 races and instead we get 43 cars racing trying to just stay in the top 10 for 26 races so that they can go into the “playoffs”.

Yes, if the points were as they were back in 2003 we would have only 2 guys realistically running for the championship but that was the point of a being a Cup champion. It wasn’t because you were the best for 10 races at the end of the year, it was because you were the best all season long. Now instead of racing you have teams going out there points racing all season long just so that they can stay in the top 10 points. It use to be they went out there and raced all season long and let the points handle themselves. Yes one man would sometimes get a big lead and there would be a couple behind him trying to play catch up. He was good over the whole season though, he had earned that right.

I hear all the talk now about how the Chase was devised to create a playoff atmosphere in NASCAR but everyone seems to have forgotten that in all reality it was suppose to be devised to stop 2003 from being repeated because we saw a man win the championship with only 1 win through the entire season. Now, in all fairness a team could go out there and just stay in the top 10 in points all year, making it into the chase and stay out of trouble and walk away with a championship without a single win. You ask me, that would make for one boring championship.

The fans don’t really worry about the points, they care about racing, they want to see side by side action. Thanks to the chase and Mr. France’s dream of creating a media friendly entertainment giant, we have lost the real NASCAR. Instead of having tracks that test the drivers and crews like Darlington and Pocono that are one of a kind tracks, we have the “cookie cutter” tracks. I don’t care if the track is built in Hollywood, so long as it makes the racing interesting. I want to see diversity, that’s why I’m looking forward to Toyota coming in. I just want to see some traditions respected by the new head of NASCAR instead of being so idly throwen a side so that Mr. France can impress his new Hollywood friends. Yes every sport must grow or it will never really amount to anything, but it must also remain true to it’s past or will topple and die!

J. Meyer
08/09/2006 04:30 PM

Yep, that’s right! EVERYONE should have a shot at the Championship, regardless if they have earned it or not. Gee, sounds like the theoretical thinking of one half of our government. You decide which half.

08/09/2006 08:33 PM

I agree with Tommy 100%.

I read the responses and its typical. Can I ask what was so great that it needed to be held on to? Thats what I dont get. I thought the old point system was old, tired, and it wore out its welcome in racing.

Every tries to act like “It was soooo much better back in the day” Which day was that? The day Bobby Allison won Daytona with 2 cars on the lead lap? The day Bobby won Dover with 2nd place 3 laps down? Or how about recent memory of 1998 when Jeff Gordon won by 400 points with a 1,400 point lead on 7th, on Dale Earnhardt no less!

Of course people will bring up the first Chase and say “Look, a wild card won, see, it didnt work” But last year Tony Stewart was crowned champion in the 2nd Chase ever, and would have won it under the infamous “Old System” as well and guess what? A heck of lot more drivers and teams had something to show up to work for in Sept & Oct, over “We’re working on next year”

Two Chases in the books, and I would say it went 50/50 so far. Sure the old system provided some exciting years. Remember 1992, 14 years ago? That usually gets plugged in right about now. “Look at 1992” like that was a reason to hold on to the old system. Dont get me wrong, I loved the old days too, but just like now, there were great races, and there were some real snoozers too.

If the Chase went 50/50 so far, I bet we can find a ton more years where the season wasnt all that exciting under the old system over when it was. Lets give the 50/50 a chance. The odds so far are in its favor.

I do believe we will see more years like last year where the cream rises to the top more times than not with the Chase and the “real” Champion is rightfully crowned.

Imagine that. A guy cant dominate thru April and coast the rest of the way like we’ve seen so many times in recent memory. Anyone else sick of hearing about the “Big Picture” before the Chase in 2003? I know I was.

Tommy is right. People are afraid of change. If the Chase pulls off another year like 2005, with edge of your seat racing heading up to Richmond and a Champion who is rightfully crowned by actually earning it down the stretch GASP then chalk up 2 out of 3 seasons for the Chase. Can we find that excitment under the infamous “old system?” You’d have to look real hard to find it, I can promise you that.

The old system got to be so boring that Nascar even sold us on this “Magical Top 10” in the points at seasons end like that was this great achievement. ZZzzzzz. Terry Labonte going from 11th in the points to 10th in the last race just didnt give this fan goose bumps.

If the Chase goes like I think it will this year in its 3rd year of existence, I think Meatloaf would have said it best…. “2 out of 3 aint bad”


08/10/2006 07:20 AM

What a crock!

08/10/2006 12:08 PM

The chase for the chump points scam was, is and always will be scripted BS carnie gimmick. It has turned what was the best racing in the world into just another stupid, insulting and irrelevent network sitcom. And now HRH Brian can’t figure out why the major media doesn’t cover his silly little series? Hey Brian, the major media doesn’t cover pro wrestling either… GET IT?

08/11/2006 10:57 AM

Form follows function, that’s the way it is. Was the old points race boring? Sure it was, it was a symptom not the problem. The problem is all the teams are not near as competitive as Bill France and Nascar would lead us to think.

You want a good points race? Then structure the Cup series so money isn’t the deciding factor. There was a time when you could show up at a race, make the field and stand a chance even without sponsorship. Now you need 20 engineers, manufacture support, and a sponsor with deep pockets to even stand a chance. Nascar wants to improve it’s profit? do it with good racing, that’s what brought them to the dance not 19yr olds with great mug shot’s.

If you want to take the dollars out then Nascar needs to collect telmetry from all the cars and pass it out to teams after the race. If you run like crap at a track you go look at the data from a team that ran well.
As far as the business thing goes, you take care of your customers and the profits will take care of themselves.

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